Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, November 14, 2019

How to take better photos for genealogy: Part One

Today's point-and-shoot digital cameras make taking photos ubiquitous. This is especially true with the incorporation of cameras in smartphones. But taking good photos for family history or genealogy purposes involves more than just clicking away with selfies or random photos. The photo above of the Overson family was taken in the early 1900s probably around 1912 or 1913. I can estimate the date of the photo from the age of my grandmother Eva Overson who is standing in the middle of the large group of people on the right side of the photo. Unfortunately, we don't have a list or other identification of all of the people in this photo and that brings up one of the basic issues with our photographic heritage: identifying the people in the photos.

Because of the advanced programming of the newer cameras, we do not have to become "professional" level photographers to take care of the mechanics of taking a photograph. Granted, a professional-level photographer can make outstanding photos, but with some instruction and a good digital camera, genealogists can make good photographs and with some practice, their photos can become even better in the future.

A good photograph has two main elements: it is mechanically correct including exposure and focus and it has a good composition. Even though the photo above was taken with a large view camera and used a glass plate to capture the image, the exposure and composition are good. All of the faces of the people in the image are visible, everything is in focus, the lighting is good and despite the long exposure time, the people are all in focus with no movement. The deterioration along the edges of the old photo is from the glass plate and lack of proper storage over time.

Let's start with the composition of the photo. Taking a genealogically significant photo may be as easy as snapping the shutter. Here is a document photo taken with a hand-held digital camera.

This photo was taken in four parts and then the parts were reassembled using Adobe Photoshop. Here is another photo taken in one shot.

This photo has not been altered at all. It is straight from the camera. However, for this type of photo, it is best to have the camera on a fixed stand such as a camera stand or tripod. Here is one type of camera stand:

Kaiser Copy Stand Kit RS-2 XA with 16x20" Grid Baseboard, 29" Column & Adjustable Camera Arm.
There are hundreds of types of stands for sale or you can make one from a DIY website. A step up from the copy stand is the lightbox. One popular lightbox among genealogists is the Shotbox.
One step up from merely taking a photograph and using it "as taken" is to use photo editing software. Some photo editing software is extremely simple, such as the tools that come with Google Photo where you select an enhancement from a menu of choices. At the other end of the spectrum of photo enhancement programs is Adobe Photoshop that has a steep learning curve and can take a relatively long time to master. Here is the same Maypole photo with some of the enhancements from another program, Adobe Lightroom.

You might be tempted to crop the image to take out the black paper border but the writing on the bottom of the page is as important as the image itself. The reason why this image was not scanned is that it is still in the photo album and removing the photo would damage it beyond repair. I could probably do a better job of enhancing the photo given time.

This brings us to some important principles: never make changes to the original photo and preserve the original using proper storage and preservation procedures.

Here is a summary of the important points of this post:

1. Learning how to take better genealogically significant photos takes some time and effort.

2. Today's cameras can do most, but not all, of the work of taking good photos.

3. You need to learn how to use your camera and then learn more about composition.

In the next installment, I will continue to talk about both the mechanics and the composition.

Stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment